Sh*t To Help You Show Up February 26, 2021
Do our stories have integrity?
I’ve been a fan of fantasy and science fiction for nearly my whole reading life, which is longer than you might imagine since I was reading Nancy Drew on my own by the end of kindergarten. In the early years, I loved the way that it activated my exceedingly fertile imagination and allowed me to escape the mundane and painful aspects of my daily life.
With Edmund, Lucy, and the rest I could imagine doors in the back of my closet that would transport me to worlds where I could be a warrior and a hero. Alongside Arthur, I could transform myself into fish and deer, connecting me to the world around me and installing a deep conviction that great leaders take care of all living creatures that call their land home.
Then in ninth grade, I was introduced to Ursula K. Le Guin and the notion of world-building. Reading A Wizard of Earthsea critically helped me decipher the underlying premises of the world that LeGuin had built. For the first time, I considered the reality that every society has ideas that it is built upon, and those ideas come from people. Coming from people means those ideas are malleable, rather than intrinsic or inevitable. I cannot think of a more empowering lesson to teach anyone. Therein lies the seeds of hope.
In 2014 Le Guin won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, and offered this beautiful acceptance speech in which she underlined this idea, saying:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
College brought Octavia Butler into my life, and there are few better, to my mind, at laying bare the potentially destructive inevitabilities of our current reality. Her books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents were creepily prescient. A wanna-be religious fascist winning the presidency of the United States on the slogan “Make America Great”? Butler warned of that in the ‘90s.
Butler wrote in Parable of the Talents:
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
In one of her last interviews before her death in 2006, Butler discussed big questions around global warming, education, and the role of religion. Like Le Guin, she challenges us to reflect on what we think of as “truth”, and how we use the tools of communication, politics, and religion to enforce those “truths”. The tools, in and of themselves, are simply tools, but how we wield them to cement existing power hierarchies is up to us.
What does all of this have to do with the question of integrity?
Consider the stories we tell— in our personal lives and in society. We repeat these stories so endlessly that we forget they are just stories, not immutable truths. Once we remember that they are stories, then we have the potential to think critically about whether these stories have integrity. Do they tell the story we mean to be telling, or is there some dissonance between who we say we are and who we actually are?
An organization doing the work to empower young people to have this sense of agency over our stories is Facing History and Ourselves. In November of last year, Karen Murphy, their Director of International Strategy, was interviewed for the On Being podcast, which you can access here. Listen to it.
In the course of the conversation, Murphy unpacks our national narrative about who we are, and how that narrative affects the way that we view our history:
We [the United States] have a linear, progressive narrative that is ascending. And so we use it to explain not just material progress…[but also] the way we’ve treated these things… [as] aberrations. So Jim Crow, rather than this huge, long period, is an “aberration.” Lynching, rather than something fairly regular, is an “aberration.” When we talk about racial violence, we treat it as an “aberration.”
Instead, Murphy and her colleagues are working to empower young people to place themselves within a more complicated narrative in order to develop their moral and civic voice. Then they can make integrous decisions about issues of “judgment and justice and fairness” :
we need to trust young people…with the truth of the world around them, because they are living in it and need to make decisions. And they’re also in relationship with others, and if you don’t understand what’s happened, how can you treat people from other communities with respect? How can you understand how you’re seen and perceived? So Facing History very much believes that young people are moral philosophers.
I cannot think of anything more hopeful than raising an entire generation of young people with a strong moral voice.
What are the stories you are telling in your own life? What are the stories being told in your community?
Do those stories have integrity? Are there parts of the story missing or voices that are being left out?
What could your role be in complicating the narrative and exercising your moral voice?
Sending much love to each and every one of you. Thank you for supporting my work. Please share widely, like (click the heart!), comment, and SUBSCRIBE if you haven’t already. Let’s grow this conversation.